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When Ché Gilliland, 47, heard about last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil leak, she rolled up her sleeves and headed to the Gulf for a three-week volunteer vacation. When she arrived, the Coupeville, Wash., elementary teacher pitched in by searching for stranded turtles, dolphins and other oil-covered animals along the Mississippi coast from the Louisiana border to Alabama’s Orange Beach. From there, she began working on a community cleanup project in New Orleans’s Holy Cross neighborhood and volunteered with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to monitor oil-spill-related health effects on Grand Isle residents.

Though Gilliland volunteered every day, she still had time most evenings to experience the richness of the local cultures. While in New Orleans, she enjoyed live music at jazz clubs almost every night. She was even invited to a private backyard music party by blues-funk vocalist Margie Perez, whom she met through another of her volunteer projects, a Mardi Gras–bead recycling program.

“I felt compelled to lend a hand in any way I could,” says Gilliland. Her motivation to volunteer, she says, came from witnessing the people of the Gulf Coast and their collaborative spirits. The residents of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward especially inspired her. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when grocery stores were scarce, they planted community gardens.

“What I love about the people I worked with,” says Gilliland, “is their spirit to make things better and more sustainable than they were before Katrina.”

Gilliland’s favorite volunteer activity was planting marsh grasses to restore the wetlands, a project organized by the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. “We boated into beautiful Bayou L’Ours with burlap bags of bulrush and cordgrass,” she says. “I knelt with muddy water up to my shoulders, dug a hole in the oozy silt, and planted the grasses. It was rewarding doing something with tangible environmental benefits while being physically active.”

Revegetation keeps marshy areas from eroding, averts inland flooding, and prevents oil from moving farther into wetlands that serve as fish, shrimp and crab nurseries, explains Jennifer Hathorn, the Coalition’s coastal restoration coordinator. “Volunteer work here is critical, because Louisiana loses a football field of wetlands every 38 minutes,” she says. “Plus, everybody has fun. If you’ve gardened, you can plant marsh. We provide shovels and show you how. All you need to do is bring your enthusiastic self!”

Join the Work, and the Fun

Like Gilliland, thousands of people have supported the Gulf Coast by volunteering — from a half-day to several weeks of work — or simply by spending tourist dollars in the region. “There’s ongoing work to be done, especially with habitat restoration and evaluating the damage done by oil,” says Finley Hewes Jr., of the National Audubon Society Gulf Oil Response office in Moss Point, Miss. “I’d hate to see loss of interest as media attention wanes.”

Whether you enjoy being in the water or focusing on Gulf culture and communities, there’s a vacation or volunteer project for every person. Beach enthusiasts can clear sandy areas of washed-up garbage or debris. Animal lovers can care for injured sea turtles at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies. Bird aficionados can help a chapter of the Audubon Society observe coastal birds.

If you’ve been harboring dreams of rescuing and cleaning pelicans, though, you should know that untrained volunteers aren’t permitted to have direct contact with toxic crude oil. Only certified veterinary helpers can handle oiled wildlife; only BP or government workers with hazmat clearance are allowed to work on oil cleanup projects.

If you plan a vacation to the Gulf and want to lend a hand, inquire in advance with volunteer groups about when and how you could serve. Even though most Gulf volunteers are locals, many nonprofit organizations welcome out-of-towners. Says Bethany Kraft, executive director of the Alabama Coastal Foundation: “We need fresh eyes and fresh energy all the time.”

Kayak Patrol

Since the Gulf oil spill, 53-year-old home-school mom Debi Foster feels like she’s the eyes and ears for Alabama’s Mobile Bay. As part of the Alabama Coastal Foundation’s Volunteer Field Observer program, she gets in her kayak every week and paddles a milelong stretch of shoreline near her home, searching for signs of oil or affected wildlife. Taking photos and jotting down her observations, Foster has joined the ranks of volunteers, including some out-of-town visitors, who document Bay conditions.

Many shoreline ecosystems were already teetering on the edge of collapse before the oil spill. Erosion, hurricanes and pollution endanger beaches, barrier islands, estuaries and marshes, which are safe harbors for migrating birds and butterflies.

“When oil started showing up, I couldn’t sit by and watch, so I got out my kayak,” Foster says. “Before the spill, there wasn’t much data on our wildlife or water quality, but the records we’re creating will be around long after I’m dead and gone.”

Field observing puts Foster in touch with nature. “I kayak beside dolphins and watch herons preen,” she says. “Volunteering makes me realize we’re all connected — and it’s empowering in a situation over which you have no control.”

A Sea of Good Deeds

Divers and snorkelers looking to combine recreation with ocean activism can report bleached coral or help clear mangroves of floating debris in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. And many find that service is more satisfying — and more educational — than simply sightseeing.

Douglas Harder, 62, a Monument, Colo., homebuilder, has contributed data to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) fish survey during his dive vacations to the Florida Keys and the Caribbean since 1993. Here’s how it works: Underwater explorers learn to identify fish by signing on to a REEF dive trip or by viewing a training DVD. During a dive or snorkeling trip, they record on waterproof paper the numbers of each species they see. Later, they enter the information into REEF’s database, an information source for marine biologists.

“Finding and IDing fish is exciting, and it gives me a purpose under water,” says Harder, who became aware of declining coral health through his diving experiences. “REEF’s survey is my way of helping Mother Nature.”

Contributing to the Community

The environment isn’t the only casualty of the 2010 crude-oil spill. Also hard hit are coastal residents, whose livelihoods depend on tourism and fishing. Following the spill, many would-be tourists scrapped their trips. “The economic impact has been huge,” says Wendy Spencer, CEO of Volunteer Florida. “If you want to support Florida residents, come visit; stay in a hotel, campground or resort. And while you’re here, take photos of the beautiful coast and post them on the Share a Little Sunshine Facebook page.”

Even though her family has enjoyed annual summer vacations in the Florida Panhandle beach community of Destin for three generations, Suzanne Brooke acknowledges that they debated about canceling their trip last summer. Ultimately, however, they decided to go.

“Oil or no oil, we wanted to do our American duty and spend dollars in the Gulf Coast,” says Brooke, who’s the owner of a Texas-based marketing design firm. “The place has given us scores of good memories, and we needed to give back.”

Destin’s white-sugar sand and crystal-clear water greeted the family as usual. What was unusual were the nearly vacant hotels and condos. “In August, the beachfront was a ghost town,” she says.

The family swam, snorkeled, biked along the Old Highway 98 trail, ate seafood in local restaurants — and never saw a drop of oil. “I wouldn’t want my kids to be unsafe, but the water was so clear where we were that I never worried,” says Brooke.

Even visiting places on the coast that have been affected by oil can still be fun. (Southern hospitality is legendary for a reason.) Should you encounter a beach that’s closed, explore other options: Take a canoe tour of Mississippi’s tributaries, cycle around Louisiana’s Grand Isle, or sign up for a Cajun cooking class in New Orleans.

Some hotels and tour companies even include volunteer projects in their packages. For instance, Marriott’s “Spirit to Serve New Orleans” package (update: expired as of June 2011) offers a day of helping Habitat for Humanity or Second Harvest Food Bank when you stay in the city’s Marriott properties. Eco-Discovery Tours, run by the nonprofit Sanctuary Friends, operates multiday active adventures in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. That can include a kayak cleanup among mangroves or a beach walk to collect trash.

Even a tragedy on the scale of Katrina or the Deepwater Horizon disaster can’t overshadow this region’s beauty. “Every day, I’m bowled over by the gorgeous beaches,” says the Audubon Society’s Finley Hewes, a Mississippi native. “Some people think visiting the Louisiana bayou is going to the ends of the earth, but I call it the beginning of the earth. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a uniquely beautiful place.”

Before you visit, check with organizations about available volunteer opportunities, how much time you have to devote, and whether advance training is required.

Alabama Coastal Foundation: Join the Volunteer Field Observer program; build nesting platforms for osprey; plant native trees.

Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana: Marsh restoration, mangrove and cypress planting, beach cleaning.

Eco-Discovery Tours: Adventure tours with a day of volunteer work.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary: Reef cleanups, bleached-coral reporting.

Galveston Bay Foundation: Marsh Mania habitat restoration, Trash Bash coastal cleanup, oyster “gardening,” Bike Around the Bay benefit ride.

Institute for Marine Mammal Studies: Clean beaches; care for rescued sea turtles; gather data by beach walking.

National Audubon Society: Various bird habitat tasks.

Ocean Conservancy: Coastal and reef cleanups.

REEF: Fish surveys on your own or with organized dive trips.

Volunteer Louisiana: Search by interest.

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